What You Don't Know About Your Bathroom Towel May Ruin Your Morning

Photo: Courtesy Boll & Branch.
What exactly is a "transparent" towel? That's the question that came to mind when I heard about Boll & Branch's new line of Fair Trade-certified bath linens. I'm familiar with concept behind Fair Trade USA, but almost solely in the context of rainforest-sourced bars of chocolate and artisanal coffee beans. To make sense of how the certification applies in this case, I caught up with Boll & Branch founder Scott Tannen to talk about the brand's new line of towels that just might change the world.

What does this mean to a consumer — is it the same as Fair Trade-certified coffee?
"Yes, it is exactly the same as Fair Trade coffee — but most people don't know what Fair Trade really stands for. Fair Trade USA is an independent organization that evaluates supply chains, from both an agriculture standpoint as well as a production standpoint. They look at everything from the prices paid to a farmer for raw materials (cotton in our case, coffee beans in the coffee brand's case) right through all aspects of turning that raw material into a product. At all phases, they inspect, and products become 'Fair Trade certified' when they independently validate each component.

"This is the first fully Fair Trade-certified towel — in simple terms, it is the first towel ever independently certified to have started with a crop that's been paid for at a price that meets the living wage (right now, that's 30% above the commodity price of cotton), while also being produced in a supply chain free of sweatshops and child labor, and by workers who are also paid above their living wage. Quite simply, this towel has helped people to live above the poverty line.

"Because we sell online, we are not passing these extra costs on to the customer. We do not have any expensive overhead, stores, or massive distribution — we're basically wholesaling to the customer. That means they are paying less and getting a product that stands for so much more than any other on the market."

How many people are involved in the production of just one of your towels?
"It isn't the easiest answer, but the best way to explain it is to walk you through the process. First, the cotton itself is planted, tended, and picked by as few as three and as many as 11 farmers per farm, depending on the farm. From there, the raw picked cotton travels to the gin, where it is cleaned and the seeds are removed. Then it is on to a spinning mill, where the cotton is spun into thread; spun thread is then dyed at the dye house, and taken to be woven into towels. Finally, they are sent in big rolls to our finishing factory just outside of New Delhi, India, where they are cut, finished, and packed to be shipped to our warehouse in L.A. All told, at least 50 individuals, likely many more, come into direct contact with our towels."

Quite simply, this towel has helped people to live above the poverty line.

Scott Tannen, Boll & Branch
Photo: Courtesy Boll & Branch.
What are the standards you hold your workers to, and how did you determine them?
We have a set of general Boll & Branch standards that we hold all of our manufacturing partners and material suppliers to. We do not force our workers to work more than eight-hour days. We pay them well. We allow them to unionize. We support their commitments to their families. We also ensure that our facilities are safe, clean, and we monitor it vigorously. Many factories store excess materials in stairwells and fire escapes — that would not be tolerated at our facilities. We would never, ever allow child labor. Plus, we constantly inspect and focus on quality and our customer's experience."

What is the biggest difference between conventionally grown cotton and organic cotton that consumers don't realize?
"The biggest difference is how incredibly toxic cotton farming is to the Earth. Cotton accounts for 5% of the world's crops, but over 25% of the world's pesticides and chemicals. Unlike large, sophisticated farms in the U.S., most cotton is grown in the developing world, and the conventional growing techniques are unbelievably dangerous. Horrific chemicals are applied by hand without safety precautions. The chemicals used in cultivating the crop may actually weaken it as well."

But synthetic fibers aren't so great either, are they?
"There are a number of synthetics that are used in [bath linens]; for instance, modal, (which is a synthetic derived from trees, but most certainly not a natural product) is very soft, but pills extremely quickly. It is also much more expensive than cotton. A modal towel will start breaking down after eight to 10 weeks of use, where high-quality cotton towels will last years. Most synthetics are blended with cotton to mask the low quality of the grade of cotton used. No-twist towels feel very soft in the store, but get hard quickly, because the cotton fibers are held in place by a vinyl coating. As the coating wears off, the low-grade cotton is exposed and it actually starts to fall out."

What are some of the general benefits of cotton? And how do you recommend caring for cotton towels and bath linens?
As a totally natural material, [cotton] gets softer over time. In bedding, for instance, it is naturally breathable — meaning it allows air to circulate. In towels, cotton is less likely to get mildew or mold because it will dry relatively quickly. The simple rule of thumb with towels is to wash them separately from any other garments or textiles, and never, ever use fabric softener. Fabric softener actually coats the towels and reduces their ability to absorb water and ultimately shortens their lifespan."

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